When Will Kabila Go? Congolese Leader Long Overstays His Welcome


In Kinshasa, the mood was tense on a recent day as residents wondered whether Mr. Kabila would honor a pact that allows him to stay in office until the end of the year as the country prepares for elections.

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President Joseph Kabila, center, before delivering a speech in Kinshasa in April.

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Junior D. Kannah/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“We are waiting,” said Elysée Yenge, 57, a shopkeeper in the capital. “We are praying to God for something to happen, because God can’t let this suffering just go on.”

Last December, an influential body of Roman Catholic bishops, the National Episcopal Conference of Congo, brokered an agreement for a transitional government followed by elections at the end of this year. Since then, Mr. Kabila has reshuffled his cabinet, choosing a major opposition figure, Bruno Tshibala, as prime minister.

But the timetable to hold an election has slipped, badly.

In a recent interview with a German newspaper, Mr. Kabila declared he had “promised nothing” in the December deal. The electoral commission added to the sense of uncertainty by saying it would probably be impossible to hold the election on time because of a lack of funds — it says the process would cost $1.8 billion — and because of unrest in the central Kasai region.

Diplomats involved in negotiations say that time is running out and that opportunities to broker Mr. Kabila’s peaceful departure are getting smaller by the day.

The ‘glissement’ is particularly dangerous because no one knows when and how it will end, said one Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing diplomatic protocol. The resilience of the Congolese people is legendary, the official added, but they’ve already suffered a lot.

Congo is extraordinarily rich in natural resources. It is Africa’s biggest copper producer and a vital source of the cobalt used in rechargeable batteries and smartphones. It has large quantities of diamonds, gold, oil, timber and uranium.

And yet, the economy is plummeting.

Partly because of lower prices for raw materials and partly because of general mismanagement, growth has shrunk from the double digits a few years ago to just below 3 percent. The currency has halved in value over 12 months. Prices are climbing fast, damaging people’s already precarious living standards. Soldiers, teachers, doctors and civil servants have not been paid their official salaries for months.

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Protesters in the neighborhood of Yolo in Kinshasa last December, when President Kabila was supposed to step down.

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Eduardo Soteras/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As the economic crisis deepens, the International Monetary Fund recently threatened to withhold desperately needed cash unless Mr. Kabila agreed to elections. The central bank’s coffers are virtually empty. Commercial banks are facing a liquidity crisis as people convert Congolese francs into dollars on the black market instead of putting them in their savings accounts.

The list of ills facing Congo, which has never had a peaceful transfer of power, goes far beyond the economic.

A civil war between government troops and Kabila opponents is raging in the heart of the country, where at least 80 mass graves have been discovered since last year and more than a million people have been displaced. Two United Nations experts sent to investigate the mass killings were killed in March.

Now, the violence has spread to Kinshasa. Just last week, a group of men stormed Le Grand Marché, a popular marketplace, killing at least three police officers. The market’s administrator, rumored to be a Kabila supporter, was found dead with her throat slit. In May, a huge jailbreak let loose more than 3,000 prisoners onto the streets.

Mr. Kabila is disliked to such an extent that some of his countrymen now fondly recall Mobutu Sese Seko, the country’s former leader known for his ruthless suppression of opponents and a gargantuan appetite for luxury, paid for with large-scale corruption. Unlike the reclusive Mr. Kabila, Mobutu showed himself in public and gave rousing speeches.

The situation has gotten so bad that rumors of a coup d’état are swirling in diplomatic circles and even within Mr. Kabila’s own party, known as the Presidential Majority.

So far, Mr. Kabila enjoys the protection of his formidable Presidential Guard, a fiercely loyal personal army of some 40,000 members who carry out brutal crackdowns at his bidding.

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A view of the derelict palace complex of Mobutu Sese Seko, the former leader of Congo, outside Kinshasa.

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John Wessels/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

He has also deftly divided the opposition, which was weakened by the death this year of Étienne Tshisekedi, who for 40 years led the opposition against three presidents: Mr. Kabila, his father and Mr. Mobuto, who staged a coup five years after independence from Belgium in 1960 and was deposed by the elder Mr. Kabila in 1997.

A few months before Mr. Tshisekedi’s death, Mr. Kabila nominated his opponent’s personal doctor to a ministerial post, which, critics say, was a ruse to keep tabs on Mr. Tshisekedi’s deteriorating health and devise ways to extend his rule.

A top contender to take over as president, Moise Katumbi, a popular figure and a former Kabila ally, has not set foot in the country for over a year. If he does, he faces prison time for what he says are politically motivated charges against him.

Despite his measures to stay in power, Mr. Kabila is finding himself increasingly isolated and cornered.

“He has all these stopgaps to delay the election,” said Jason K. Stearns, the director of the Congo Research Group at New York University and author of “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters,” a book about the country’s war. “He hasn’t been able to change the Constitution to stay in power or find a successor that he trusts. So he’s left playing for time.”

Some of Mr. Kabila’s closest advisers have either fled overseas or switched to the opposition, and members of his entourage have been targeted by Western sanctions.

Fearing an exodus of refugees across their borders, Congo’s neighbors and traditional allies are also losing patience. In particular, Rwanda and Angola, which have reached some stability after their own civil wars, have little appetite for a return to chaos.

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Supporters of the veteran Congolese opposition leader Étienne Tshisekedi mourned his death outside his residence in Kinshasa in February. Mr. Tshisekedi led the opposition for 40 years against the country’s presidents.

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Robert Carrubba/Reuters

The same Catholic bishops who tried to broker a deal, exasperated by Mr. Kabila’s lack of commitment, issued an unprecedented call in June for people to “rise up” against the government.

Government officials insist it is the economic crisis that is hampering the electoral process.

“When we don’t have money, priority should be given to resolve the economic crisis, rather than to elections, don’t you think?” said Theophile Mbayo Kifuntwe, Mr. Kabila’s political adviser.

According to Mr. Kifuntwe, nearly everyone but the president is to blame for the crisis: foreigners, who are infiltrating the country to stoke popular rebellions; a popular Catholic bishop, part of the group that tried to broker a deal with Mr. Kabila, who secretly wants the top job. The government even accused Belgium of plotting to overthrow Mr. Kabila and recently threatened to oust Bart Ouvry, the European Union ambassador to Congo, who is Belgian.

“We are threatened from all sides,” said Mr. Kifuntwe, who included teachers and doctors in his list of threats.

When he assumed the presidency in 2001 after his father’s assassination by his bodyguards, Mr. Kabila was considered a great hope for the country. One of his biggest accomplishments was a peace deal with Congo’s neighbors after the devastating war. He also brought in investment from international mining companies.

But according to those who have known Mr. Kabila personally for a long time, he has amassed so much wealth for himself and his family that he is not ready to give up, even at the cost of more bloodshed.

The country “provided him with easy money, made him feel invincible,” said Francis Kalombo, who knew Mr. Kabila as a young man and was once one of his closest advisers before a falling out in 2015. “So why leave?”

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People gathered to hear Mr. Kabila’s speech in Kinshasa in April.

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Robert Carrubba/Reuters

Mr. Kabila and his family have a business network controlling virtually all industry in the country, from mining to a company issuing license plates. The president holds more than 71,000 hectares of farmland, according to the Congo Research Group. Two companies that belong to the family own diamond permits that extend more than 450 miles along Congo’s southern border with Angola.

The government spent more than $4 million this year on a lobbying campaign in Washington to bolster its image, according to disclosure filings with the United States Justice Department.

“Someone who is planning to leave wouldn’t do that,” said Mr. Kalombo, who says he doubts Mr. Kabila will ever hold elections.

The Congolese leader is also encouraged by what he sees in the rest of Africa, Mr. Kalombo said. When other African leaders like Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, have managed to cling on to power using various maneuvers, including changing their Constitutions, Mr. Kabila reasons he can do the same.

During his rule, Mr. Kabila, who likes to hole up in his enormous Kinshasa residence or on one of his farms outside the city, has done little to connect with the public. He was largely raised in exile while his father was plotting to overthrow Mobutu. When he assumed the presidency, he was not fluent in French or Lingala, two of the main languages spoken in Congo.

Mr. Kalombo recalled a conversation he once had with Mr. Kabila.

“‘The Congolese people are cowards,’” Mr. Kabila told him, according to his former friend. “‘You just need to fire four or five gunshots for them to scurry back into their homes.’”

Mr. Kabila was not available for comment in time for publication.

Just like King Leopold II of Belgium, who ran the country as a personal fief for more than 20 years until 1908, Mr. Kabila and his family are operating Congo as a giant cash machine, Mr. Kalombo said.

Mr. Kabila “is a businessman, and Congo is just about making deals,” he added.

“The Congolese people,” he said, “are nothing to him.”

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